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November 26, 2014

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How to improve elections

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Clean, fair and credible elections underpin a functioning democracy, so improving the way ballots are cast and counted ought to be a broadly embraced, wholly nonpartisan goal. The divisive 2000 presidential contest, with its drawn-out tally and infamous hanging chads, delivered a wake-up call both to the electorate and to election officials that improvements were needed, even in our mature form of representative government. Twelve years later, elections are unquestionably better administered, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Election difficulties have not been limited to one state, one region or one time period. Across the country, state and local officials have continually lacked clear information about how their methods and outcomes stacked up to balloting elsewhere. This was, in fact, a question I asked myself when I served as Kentucky’s secretary of state and chief election officer, and one that I had put to my peers during my tenure as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. For without factual and impartial comparisons, the nuts and bolts of running governments are bound to suffer.

Until now, that is. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, encompassing all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, provides exactly the kind of metrics and comparisons that could help elections officials figure out how they measure up. Most important, it offers a way for states to borrow the best ideas from one another.

Notably, due to the lack of consistent and quality data, the interactive Elections Performance Index steers clear of the rancorous issue of voter identification, which too often obscures meaningful discussions about how simply to make elections work better. The tool also moves away from using mere anecdotes to shore up points of view, a habitat that’s as hard to break as it is unproductive. In addition, it allows users to customize the index to see how the rankings are affected by the inclusion or exclusion of different indicators.

Now, elected leaders and administrators have a real opportunity to make sure that what they do aids the process of democracy. It is precisely the sort of progress we’ve championed at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which seeks to bridge the chasm between academics who study democracy and the policymakers who make a government operate.

The index reveals significant differences in how easy or difficult it is for Americans to vote, based on where they live. The best states for voting in both 2008 and 2010 turned out to be North Dakota and Wisconsin. Scores for most other states show mixed results, with many doing well in some areas but lagging in others. For example, my home state of Kentucky was close to the middle in both years, a combination of keeping better tabs on its own data but failing to help disabled voters.

A further glance demonstrates some interesting findings. A growing number of states, like Colorado, have improved elections by adding ways for voters to find information and devising secure online registration. Meanwhile, Florida, which always seems to be in the nation’s spotlight during presidential election years, lands in the middle of the pack, despite its long lines in 2008.

One problem common to many states in the index is the inability to track their own data. That observation harkens back to a central concern: more states should know how they compare with their peers so they can improve. For instance, I used similar rankings when lobbying Kentucky’s General Assembly to improve our campaign finance and our business organization laws.

My hope is that an index like this will empower state legislators, citizens and election administrators to examine how their states measure up — and then make the necessary changes to improve. And with the eventual addition of 2012 data, the index will become even more valuable.

Elections should vigorously test candidates and ideas, but the actual process ought to take place smoothly and cleanly. Making them work better can and must be a nonpartisan goal. If ballots are the building blocks of democracy, then transparency and credibility form the mortar that holds together the foundations of self-government.

Trey Grayson is director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and served as Kentucky’s secretary of state from 2004 to 2011. He was an external reviewer of the study mentioned in the article.

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